Email storage issues and a problem with upgrading to the latest version of Microsoft Exchange have been blamed for random email outages in the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) over the last few months.
Since February, a number of parliamentarians have reported to DPS that they have experienced downtime on the availability of their email. Labor Senator Ursula Stephens noted at budget estimates hearings yesterday that she had observed that the problem is limited to only a few employees in the Senate offices at any one time.
DPS deputy secretary David Kenny told the budget estimates hearing that email servers have become overloaded and, for BlackBerry users in particular, this would appear as though the device isn't working at all.
"The reason it appears random, in that someone is affected and someone is not, is that I think we have six servers in total ... and so that if it is your server that is impacted you will feel like you can't use email at all," he said. "Different staff are on different servers in the one office."
But the department is working on a solution, he said.
"We have taken a number of steps to move people onto an extra server so the load is better balanced and people don't suffer from a poor email service."
Kenny said that many of the users have very large mailboxes, with one user having 20GB worth of email. He said that this added to the slowness of email access for those high-volume users and also made it difficult for the department administration to resolve their mailbox issues, as it would require the email to be offline for several hours while the mailbox was migrated to a different server.
"We are investigating how we can put in place an archive capability that will allow people to move their email and their attachments into an archive where they're still accessible but they're not having a performance impact," Kenny said.
To achieve this, Kenny said that the department would be required to update to the latest version of the email software, which the department had been ready to do a few weeks ago until Microsoft advised against it.
"There was a problem advised from Microsoft which had serious reliability instances. I think from memory it was about email being lost, which obviously is not acceptable," he said. "We expect a fix for that by the end of this month and then we can reschedule."
In the meantime, Kenny said that the department would try to balance the load across the existing servers, and ruled out adding more email servers until after the upgrade.
"It's not that we can't acquire more, it is just that the logistics of putting in new servers with new software and migrating people across to them, along with all their historical data, is time-consuming and we can't schedule it until we're confident that the new system is reliable."
Kenny explained to ZDNet Australia today that the vast majority of users in the department were on Exchange 2003, with a few users trialling 2010. He said that emails going missing was an issue in the 2010 version and the department will hold off a full roll-out of the 2010 version until Microsoft implements a fix.
Microsoft Australia was contacted for further clarification but had not responded at the time of writing.
Updated at 4:33pm, 24 May 2011: added comment from Kenny.